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Title: Judaism’s Encounter With American Sports

Title: Judaism’s Encounter With American Sports
Author: Jeffrey Gurock

 

 

Despite commonly held conceptions that athletic prowess and Jews don’t mix, a Jewish fascination and involvement with the world of sports can be traced back throughout the ages. Today, particularly in America, sports has assumed a central part in the collective identity of the modern Jew. Stories of Jewish boys and girls who beat the odds and made it in the highly competitive world of professional sports typically reflected as much on their religion as their particular feats on the field of play. Yet, considerable strides have been made in recent decades towards making the dreams of young Jewish athletes come true.


It is that growing sense of comfort and acceptance that serves at the center of Judaism’s Encounter with American Sports. This book should not be mistaken as just another book about Jews in professional sports. For readers looking for inspiring tales of how figures like Sandy Koufax placed their religion over their profession, they should be forewarned that this book successfully tackles sports from a far broader perspective.


The title might therefore be slightly misleading, being that the book deals little with popularly held understandings of what is “American Sports” and deals more with American Judaism’s encounter with athletics.


Jeffrey Gurock, a professor of history at Yeshiva University, succeeds in drafting a thorough and often enlightening text of a unique aspect of American Jewish identity. Using sports as a prism with which to better understand the acclimation – if not assimilation – of American Jewry, this book will be of considerable interest even to those who can’t tell the difference between a touchdown and a homerun.


Both a historical and sociological study, the book traces how sport – which in ancient Jewish circles was more associated with Hellenism and material values – slowly became more acceptable even within more traditional circles. Gurock argues that this transition was a combination of accommodation and necessity – accommodation routed in a desire for Jews in modern society to conform with their secular surroundings and necessity based on a growing need for Jews to increase their physical prowess to defend their stature in increasingly hostile environments.


Mostly, the book presents sports as a mode of expression for Jewish immigrants, and more prominently as a vehicle for their children to feel like Americans.


With that desire came considerable challenges to issues of faith and religious observance, which Gurock concedes led some younger athletes to abandon their religious upbringing in favor of the more secular lifestyles that accompanied athletic success. Yet, the book more powerfully argues that religious leaders came to accept sports as a means to reach out to young Jews as a method of keeping them in the community.


Citing the arrival of gymnasiums into the construction plans of modern American synagogues and community centers, the book displays how by the mid-20th century, rabbis and Jewish communal leaders recognized that including sports facilities in their offerings had become a necessary approach to entice younger Jews to embrace religious observance.


In one of the most enlightening sections, reflecting the extensive research which must have been put into constructing this book, Gurock quotes from the European rabbinic luminary Rabbi Israel Mayer Kagan, commonly referred to as the Chofetz Chaim, encouraging his students to take up physical activities and warns them, “Do not study overmuch.” As a professor at Yeshiva University, America’s academic beacon for Modern Orthodoxy, Gurock makes a concerted effort to display how traditionalists like those who fathered his university were some of the more open-minded when it came to introducing athletics into their curricula. While integration took several generations, and in some more traditional communities has yet to occur, this book paints the process as an important manifestation of the desire of Jews in America to fit in with surroundings that place a fair degree of importance on success on the playing field.



Much of the historical narrative explored in the book focuses on Yeshiva University, which, through its underlying conceptual framework of melding traditional Judaism with manifestations of modernity, became the first chance for a Jewish student to retain observance and still “feel collegiate.” Gurock’s overemphasis on the role of Yeshiva in providing a safe haven for Jewish athletes might be criticized by readers who would quickly point out that many Jewish athletes not interested in a yeshiva lifestyle were continuing to face the conflicts between secularism and observance.



Over the course of the 20th century, sports among American Jews became less an issue of identity preservation and an increasing form of entertainment, which even more traditional Jews could fall in love with without concern that it would harm their personal religiosity. This dramatic shift manifested itself to the extent that in 1986, when the New York Mets reached the World Series, observant Jewish fans went so far as to appeal (admittedly in vain) to major league officials to delay a pivotal playoff game scheduled for Yom Kippur. It is this type of anecdote that Gurock uses to colorfully display just how far Jews have come out of the shtetl.


As an award-winning historian and an accomplished athlete, Gurock skillfully uses his writing to both display his academic prowess and his passion as a sports fan. As a highly readable and often captivating book, Judaism’s Encounter with American Sports is sure to leave readers crossing the finish line with a better and more informed understanding of the role of athletics in the development of the American Jew.(JPFS)



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Despite commonly held conceptions that athletic prowess and Jews don’t mix, a Jewish fascination and involvement with the world of sports can be traced back throughout the ages.

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